prose

Symmetries of a Miracle

Short story by Zoran Ferić from the collection An Angel in Offside (Anđeo u ofsajdu)
Translated by Tomislav Kuzmanović



I.      The Sixth Station

Many years ago, back when they were still a family, one Sunday in winter Ivan and his parents went for a walk around a frozen lake in Maksimir Park. It was just around Christmas and the park, the strollers, even the trees seemed somehow dignified. And then, suddenly, they saw a group of people on the shore and some guy pointing at a large hole in the ice. They saw the water the color of steel, broken pieces of ice, and right next to the hole a baseball cap turned upside-down and a sign with a message written in symmetrical red letters:

            ICE IS A PHYSICAL STATE WHICH ALLOWS AN ORDINARY MAN TO BECOME CHRIST!

            Next to the sign was a small can of paint with a brush carefully placed across the opened top. There was no one on the ice, and the surface of the water in the hole was eerily calm.

            It was a shocking experience. After that people with cameras showed up and shot their faces. It turned out that this was some kind of artistic project, a happening by a painter who that year organized provocative performances in order to warn people that life was made of well-known stubbornly repeated paradoxes.

            Exactly five years later Ivan’s mother died. There was some perfect lack of sense in that round number. After the funeral they sent him to spend his summer holidays with his father in Frankfurt am Main. While the agony was taking place, his father didn’t show himself around. They had been divorced for a couple of years, then he couldn’t get time off to watch his ex-wife die. Breast cancer metastasized into her lungs and everything was over relatively quickly: from October to December.

            And December that year was wet and incredibly warm. The drizzle that pricked his face that night turned winter into early spring. They stood in front of the entrance and watched the last customers leave the department store accompanied by the guard’s gentle nod. Even though it was only nine in the evening, and just before Christmas, the streets were empty.

            “This is where we come in,” Ivan’s father said.

            They approached the door and knocked on the glass. Over a minute passed before a man in a green uniform crack opened the door.

            “You’re here,” he said, shaking hands first with Ivan’s father and then with Ivan.

            “Why are we here?” Ivan asked. Everything seemed rather strange.

            “And the kid doesn’t know?” the guard said.

            “He’ll learn soon. We have to teach the boy to have some fun, right?” said Ivan’s father and gave the guard a one hundred Deutsch Marks bill.

            They both laughed. Ivan noticed that the guard’s huge stomach bound by his tight jacket bounced as he laughed. The belt with the gun shook too.

            “Everything’s taken care of,” he said.

            Ivan and his father headed upstairs. The escalator was shut down so they climbed slowly, on foot. Like in some pilgrimage. As they climbed, his father explained to him which department was on which floor. He read this on large boards which now were unlit: sports and guns, leather goods, toys, men’s apparel.

            “Kid, now it’s time to show you something you’ve most certainly never seen before,” his father said.

            “Are we going to take something?”

            “Don’t you dare,” his old man said. “That’s not why we’re here.”

            They reached the fourth floor which was full of furniture. Kitchen cabinets, bedroom sets, completely furbished drawing rooms, with books and paintings, like in real apartments. Some of the lamps were on and this gave the floor a homey atmosphere. The father found one leather sofa, original Chesterfield, and that’s where they sat down.

            “What are we doing here?”

            “Sitting,” Ivan’s father said. “We’re sitting and waiting.”

            They waited in silence. Ivan was gazing at softly lit “rooms” while his father occupied himself with the buttons on the Chesterfield. He plucked them and turned, as if breaking mice’s necks. It was strange to see him there sitting on that Chesterfield, him, a common man, trying to do something with those leather buttons.

            And then they heard a sound. As if a wet rag was drawn across the marble floor. First they saw a blue duster appear next to a dining room set and then they caught sight of a person mopping the floor. The light was dim, they couldn’t see the person’s face. Then the sound stopped, the person disappeared somewhere behind a line of wardrobes, and soon after they heard someone talk. The father’s face said nothing. He was just waiting.

            Now they saw two women in blue cleaning ladies’ dusters approaching them. One of them had very large breasts. The one with the large breasts was older. Her lips were thin and turned downwards. The other woman was young, with bleached hair which was dark brown at the roots. Under their dusters both of them wore skirts and sandals with heels.

            Ivan’s father greeted them and they sat down next to them.

            “Which one do you want?” he said. Ivan was silent, confused. All of it happened so suddenly.

            “Girls, will you stand up,” father said, “so that the kid can have a better look.”

            “Is it his first time?” the older one said. Her accent was Bosnian, her voice raspy, the mini-skirt tight on her ass. It was some kind of elastic fabric which clung to her body.

            “Kid, I know this is your first time,” she addressed him, “I can tell it by your nose!”

            “Speak, kid,” his father said. “This is your night.”

            The older woman pulled up her skirt and showed them her ass.

            “Stop it,” said the younger woman. “He’ll cum from just watching. You take the kid, we’re staying here!”

            The older woman walked toward the part that housed bedrooms separated by wardrobes.

            “Pick the spot!” she said. The names of the bedrooms and their prices were written on small cardboard labels which were placed on beds or nightstands: Gaby, Imelda, Ozana, Ulrike. He stopped at Ozana. The teakwood French bed was decorated with tendrils which were supposed to represent flowers or branches of vines. The wardrobe mirror had the same vines on it. The older woman covered the bed with a sheet like a real housewife.

            “Make yourself comfortable,” she told him and started to unbutton her blouse. They were undressing in silence. He was done first. He stood there in his shoes and socks, completely naked, and the thing between his legs was stiff. She approached him and patted his balls a little. In her left hand she held a condom, while with her right she still played with Ivan’s testicles. She bit off the top of the condom wrapper, took it out skillfully and blew into the tip. Then she quickly put it on. She rolled her hand a couple of times toward his belly to make sure the rubber clung tightly to his penis.

            “Now you’re ready,” she said and slapped his stomach. “Now you can fuck.”

            This really was his first time. He couldn’t concentrate. All sorts of things came to his mind. For example, a fat man who climbed on top of his Volkswagen Passat and peed on its hood. Or an old lady without fists who sold little turtles from the bottom of an overturned yellow bucket. While he fucked her, he could notice that the woman kept turning her head away, as if she was trying to set herself free from his breath. He was looking at her face on which drops of sweat slowly appeared.

            “Next time you go fuck someone,” she said suddenly, “don’t eat onion.”

            And then a strange thought started to obsess him, the thought he couldn’t get rid of. He imagined this woman in mourning as she completely drunk pushed the stroller with a tiny baby inside. Who knows where the image came from. For a moment she would stop, supporting herself on the stroller, as if this was the only firm thing she could take a hold off. That’s what, he thought, Biblical prophets saw and then tried to explain. His penis fell out a couple of time and she always returned it back into her with patience, but the thing didn’t progress toward the logical conclusion. Every time he approached the climax, the image of the woman in mourning appeared before his eyes and the color of her dress stood out on the background of the clear blue of the imagined sky. She kept on sweating under him more and more and then at one moment she told him: “There are some tissues in my duster. Get them!”

            He stretched in the direction of the duster which had been thrown over a nightstand and from one of the pockets fished out a pack of paper tissues. She moved together with him so he didn’t have to take it out at all. Now in his hand he held a cellophane packet and then he took out one of the tissues that smelled of pine.

            “Wipe my face!” she said still circling with her pelvis like a woman who knew what she was doing.

            He patted her face several times and collected the sweat. The porous paper soaked the sweat together with her makeup, which left irregular, colorful blots on it. Bit by bit Ivan was becoming aware of the abstract picture forming on the paper which, who knows why, was a perfect image of the woman’s face.

            When he finally came, it became clear to him that the miracle shows where we least expect it. One needed to witness this.

 

 

II.       The Landscape of Max Jacob’s Soul

Sunny but cold day of the late summer caught them in the car driving to the top of the mountain. The road was narrow and meandering, and from time to time raspberry branches that protruded into the road swiped against the side of the car. Ivan held the wheel with two fingers and watched the woods. Davor leaned back in the passenger’s seat and boldly put his right elbow through the open window.

            “That evening,” he said, “when I first fucked my wife up her ass, her mother died. First I filled up her colon, and then the phone rang. She kept saying, ‘You’re disgusting!’ As if it were my fault.”

            They passed through the part of the forest where once stood a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients. Some well-known doctor built the hospital for an actress whom he was in love with for years. People said that back in the thirties even the foxes that fed on the leftovers from the hospital kitchen were infected too.

            “How long has it been since your mother died?”

            “Fifteen years,” Ivan said. “I still can’t believe it’s been that long.”

            Then they went silent. Who knows why, Ivan thought of Huckleberry Finn and his adventures on the banks of the Mississippi. This clear summer day looked like it came out of Mark Twain’s fantasy. Maybe this was also because the two of them felt like boys.

            “I fucked her too!” Davor suddenly said.

            Ivan still didn’t say anything as if he was concentrating on the road and the bends.

            “As far as I know,” he said after he’d been thinking a while, “you called me to join you. You wanted to do a threesome when we went on that skiing trip.”

            “Yes,” Davor said, “I did. I mean, I wanted you to fuck her while I was there. But as far as I know, when this happened, I wasn’t there.”

            “No, you weren’t,” said Ivan, still looking at the road. “But it was as if you were.”

            This was a very firm male friendship. Such conversations only made it stronger. From the speakers a bitter voice of a woman sang Fado, Portuguese folk music along which people from Lisbon suburbs commit suicide.

            They were close to the top of the mountain. Oaks and beeches were replaced by coniferous trees whose branches blocked the sun. The air became sharp and cold. It was the same air that used to help those suffering from tuberculosis live longer.

            Ivan stopped the car in front of an elongated building that was once yellow and they got out. It was one of the pavilions of the tuberculosis hospital and it offered a nice view of the city. This is where usually lovers stopped and watched how deep down below them the sun set into the fog.

            “I realized she didn’t love me anymore,” Davor said, “when she stopped swallowing. We were up there in the attic, I made a fire, I liked it when she blew me next to the fire. When I finished, she kept the semen in her mouth and ran to the toilet. I asked her why she didn’t swallow and she said that it was bitter. ‘How can it be bitter?’ I asked. I was naïve. She never swallowed again and I knew it was over.”

            Ivan took hold of Davor’s forearm. He tried it to be a firm, male squeeze.

            “Are you unhappy?” he asked Davor.

            Davor was crying. He knelt down above the cliff and cried in silence. The tears ran down his chin.

            “It doesn’t matter,” he managed to say, “I forgave you.”

            It was a very strange image: a man crying in a position more suitable for emptying one’s bowels, and down there, in the valley, the city.

            Later, when they walked along the mountain path toward one of the annexes of the tuberculosis hospital, those tears were something both of them wanted to forget as soon as possible.

            “The only thing I regret was that I let her take the pictures,” he said.

            “When your world is falling apart,” Ivan said, “you don’t go saving trifles.”

            They were just above a small clearing where the furthest pavilion of the hospital stood. They sat down on some tree stumps and watched the clearing in the sun. This was good. The sitting, the air and the modest optimism that was about to happen. And then they noticed a painter. But, as it seemed, he didn’t see them. He stood in front of his easel and watched the little house in the clearing, which from this far away looked idyllic. No one could recognize the house to which the tuberculosis patients were taken to die. The painter, with his shaved head, dressed in yellow rubber overalls fishermen wear on their boats, busied himself with the painting. His eyes went from the pavilion to his painting, while in short moves he applied paint on the canvas.

            “I can’t remember when I last saw something like this,” Davor whispered. “I thought that today landscapes are made from photos.”

            It was then that the painter did something strange. He took a plastic yoghurt cup in his hands, stepped away from the easel, unzipped his pants and started to urinate in the cup. Actually, he caught only two or three streams in it and he generously let the ground have the rest.

            “He’s out his fucking mind,” Ivan whispered. Now they had a good reason to stay unnoticed for as long as they could.

            Meanwhile, the painter went back to the easel, took a tube of yellow, squeezed some of it into the urine and mixed it. He applied the yellow tones of the sun or soil to the mountain path. Later, he did the same thing with the green. Now on the little stool next to the easel there were two cups in which the urine was mixed with the colors of the spectrum of the Sun. He added green tones as well: the leaves, the grass, fresh greenish shadows on the house. Ivan and Davor held their breaths when he, not far from the easel, took off his complicated overalls construction in order to defecate. He shat calmly, his back turned in their direction, watching the valley.

            “It seems he ran out of brown,” Davor whispered.

            When the shit came out completely, the painter carefully wiped his ass. He spent almost the whole roll of toilet paper, still watching the city in the valley, as if this was some kind of revenge.

            “So much paper!” Davor whispered. His mood improved completely.

            The painter put his clothes back on, came back to the easel, took his brush, scooped up some shit, and then squeezed a drop of some paint on the shit. Ivan and Davor just watched him. There was certain holiness in what he did. All that smell transforming into brightness of the landscape, as if soaked up by the ground and turned back into beauty, was a miracle.

            “The guy’s completely nuts,” Davor whispered elatedly. “Why does he do this?”

            “We’ll have to ask him that,” Ivan said, standing up from the stump, and headed toward the painter who was not painting the sky and the clouds in it. He mixed white with his saliva.

            The painter showed no surprise when he saw them. As if the whole time he was aware of their presence.

            “Be careful not to step in the shit!” he warned them. They could tell he was kind. Besides, he was much older than he seemed at first sight. The fact that his head was shaved placed him somewhere beyond time.

            “Nice painting,” said Davor, confused. Obviously, he didn’t know what to say.

Ivan stood in front of the easel studying the rough brush marks of the oil paint. The smell of turpentine mixed with unpleasant smells of other substances mixed into the paint. “Why urine?” he finally asked. He tried to make his question sound as relaxed as possible.

“The answer depends on,” the painter said, “whether you are ready to hear it. There are a lot of those who aren’t.”

His back was still partially turned to them and he never stopped with his work. One brush, a thinner one, he held in his mouth and several others in his hands. He seemed like a man who didn’t care about what other people thought.

“I think he’s screwing around with us,” Davor said. His confusion from a second ago disappeared and suddenly there was arrogance.

“No, he’s not, he’s just busy,” Ivan said.

“C’mon, old man,” he went on, “tell us why you pee in the paint!”

“Because when I was young I had illusions,” the painter said. “That’s why.” It seemed he was talking to Ivan. “Your friend is not ready to hear.”

“I’m ready,” Davor said. There was something pathetically serious in his words.

“If I tell him,” the painter went on, “will he cry?”

“Bastard! He saw me cry.”

“You saw me take a dump,” said the painter, “and I’m not making a scene. You want to know why I pee in the paint. That’s how I make the paintings for sale. When I was young, I had illusions. I didn’t paint, I made performances and installations. I appealed directly to people’s consciousness. But here no one gives a fuck about consciousness, people want paintings. OK then, I sell them paintings. Kitsch. Forest, a little house, clouds.”

“And everything made of poo and pee,” Davor interrupted him.

“I read that in a book,” the painter said. He stopped working and turned to face them. His overalls were completely covered with paint. “It says in that book that one expressionist from Austria, Max Jacob was the name, made some sweet, kitschy paintings with his bodily fluids and then sold them to the petty bourgeoisie for large money. I do the same, and the paintings peal with time. The paint falls off. The shit works.”

“You do portraits?” Ivan suddenly asked. He seemed completely serious.

“Landscapes sell best. But sometimes I do portraits,” he added, “on commission.”

 

A cloud did something to the sun and the intensity of colors in nature suddenly changed. Now the painting, in this momentary darkness, looked surreal. For a moment the sun existed only on the canvas.

“Can you put us in?” Ivan asked.

“What,” Davor said, “what are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about,” he said, “him putting us in the picture.” The he told the painter, “We’ll pay you if you paint us there beside the house.”

“No problem,” said the painter. “Go stand there next to the door and I’ll paint you. No problem at all.”

“You’re completely nuts too,” said Davor, but it seemed he was somehow glad. He didn’t think of his wife anymore. They positioned themselves next to the door of the tuberculosis pavilion. Two friends in an idyllic landscape.

“Do you want me to paint you with this too?” asked the painter and discreetly showed at the cups with urine.

“Sure,” Ivan replied, “pee is fine.”

And the painter started. They couldn’t see what he was doing, but they knew that the smell transforming into brightness, the canvas soaking it in and turning it back into beauty, was a miracle.

In the meanwhile the sun started shining again.

 

 

III.    Animals Calendar

1.

Every afternoon while hurrying down the old corridor of the Stubičke Toplice rehabilitation center, Sonja had to pass by a completely paralyzed little girl. The kid just sat there in her special wheelchair with odd mechanic construction. Here and there a nun who worked at the hospital would wheel her away from the window afraid that the glow of the sun might damage her eyes. The sight made Sonja think of modern sculptures. The movable aluminum construction stood in obvious disagreement with the rigidness of the girl’s body. And that very construction reminded her of Henry Moore’s mobiles and his obsession to control the movement.

            After feeding her, the nun would read to the girl. Sonja had never heard what she was reading, probably parts from the Bible, but she liked to imagine that she was reading The Decameron. The story about the fake Archangel Gabriel who makes night calls to the bedroom of one Venetian woman. The touching encounter made her feel warm around her heart: a fake angel and a paralyzed little girl…. In it there was something unearthly erotic, which needed no movement.

            “Have you seen that kid in the hall, the paralyzed one?” asked her mother who was here recovering after her right leg had been amputated.

            “What about her?”

            “They steal her panties?”

            This was hard to believe. Still, her mother was resolute and kept insisting on this information.

            “Sister Anđelija told me this,” she said, “the nun who feeds her. Every second or third day her panties disappear. They either steal them from the laundry or take them off her, poor thing, when she’s asleep. She’s paralyzed, can’t feel a thing.”

            “This is becoming interesting,” Sonja said.

            “People are animals,” her mother said.

            After she became friends with the kid, every day she would buy her chocolate. The little girl’s name was Marija and she was seventeen, but she didn’t look it. When Sonja finally managed to tame her horror, it became very interesting for her to watch Marija skillfully remove the wrapping from the Animal Kingdom chocolate with that one movable hand and place the picture in the pocket of her short bathrobe. It became sort of a ritual: she gave her the chocolate and waited to see which animal would appear. For a person whose all days were the same, this needed to be something like a calendar. She imagined: instead of April 14 – the Siberian Duck, instead of April 15 – the Platypus, from Australia.

            “Have you heard,” her mother said on a different occasion, “someone stole the kid’s panties again. But I know who. I’ve been suspicious of him for a while now. And the swine won’t take clean ones, from the closet, he goes after the dirty ones…”

            “Siberian Swine,” said Sonja angrily. Her mother felt satisfied.

            On the afternoon, when she was saying goodbye to her mother at the terrace of Bistro Salambo where mostly bedridden people from the rehabilitation center hung out in their wheelchairs, she saw something odd. An unshaved older man, wearing greasy pants made of cheap cloth and a worn-out jacket, was saying something in front of Marija who was parked by the fountain and was feeding pigeons with that one healthy arm of hers. The man was whispering in her direction as if proposing something suspicious. He looked like a chronic alcoholic. Marija was listening to him without interest, focused on the birds. It seemed she was having fun throwing the seeds into the fountain and watching the helpless pigeons gaze at the seeds from the rim of the fountain. Handfuls of seeds turned into unattainable floating islands.

            “That’s the pig I was telling you about,” Sonja’s mother said. “Recently he started taking her out for an afternoon “walk”. I don’t know where he came from, but people say that he was touching some girls during the summer swimming school.”

            Having noticed that they were watching him, the man quickly walked away from the kid.

            “You have to admit this is suspicious,” said Sonja’s mother.

            “I admit it!” Sonja confirmed.

For real, there was something mysterious about all this.

            “Any which way you turn it,” the mother went on, “men are animals. Even that one of yours…”

            “Okay, mama, let’s not talk about it now,” said Sonja irritated. “I have to go, I get up early tomorrow.”

 

 

2.

The next afternoon, when she was on her way to visit her mother, a young man, who had both of his legs amputated so he seemed unusually short in his wheelchair, asked her to push him up a graveled path to a little hill above the rehabilitation center. She agreed and while she pushed him it seemed to her that he was very light, despite the wheelchair. She never even imagined how much weight was in the legs. A bit later she saw him fly down the hill with unseen pleasure. He was yelling: “Waaaaatch iiiiiiiit!”

            Her mother and she were sitting on a bench in the park. Her mother now had crutches and a prosthesis and was learning to walk again. But she seemed a lot worse than a couple of days ago.

            “That’s what he does all day long. It’s his way of having fun,” Sonja’s mother said. “He asks people to push him up the hill and then he goes down. That’s his only entertainment here. People say that when he was a baby a sow ate his legs, but I think he lost them in a traffic accident or something.”

            After that her mother started talking about Sonja’s husband. As always, her words were full of hatred for Davor, and Sonja let her talk. Strangely, it helped her mother walk better. Now they were walking past old pines from where they could see the pools with hot water.

            “Walk behind me, Sonječka,” her mother said, “in case I fall on my back.”

            That’s how they reached the fountain where Marija was sitting in her modernist wheelchair. The sun was just setting, painting the objects and landscape orange, and Marija was again feeding the pigeons. The birds were again helplessly standing at the end of the fountain, staring eagerly at the water full of floating seeds. But now beside her there was that young legless man in his wheelchair. He was also watching the birds and both of them were silent. Someone would think they were in love, but Sonja was convinced that something like that was impossible. The two of them looked like two completely different kinds of little animals. They could be nothing but friends.

            “Wait here,” Sonja told her mother. “I have a chocolate bar for the kid.”

            But when she approached them, she saw the young man take out a white envelope from somewhere and put it secretly in Marija’s bathrobe pocket. It looked like a love letter, but Sonja knew that love in such circumstances is far away. The only thing that interested her was what was in the envelope.

 

 

3.

            “That girl has no panties left,” Sonja’s mother told her when two days later she showed up in the rehabilitation center. “Sister Anđelija saw that when we took her to the toilet. To do the number two. And now the nun lent her her panties until they buy the new ones for the kid.”

            “And who’s getting her the new panties?”

            “The nurses from the hospital, they buy them for her, down at the department store.”

            The thing, one had to admit, was strange. Sometimes, on the bus, she would catch herself thinking about those panties and the whole strange deal. As the bus entered the town, she felt as if getting into some TV show and as if new episodes awaited for her here.

            That evening, however, she decided something needed to be done regarding Marija’s panties. She had just seen that unshaved man in the corridor as he carefully looked left and right, and then secretly entered Marija’s room. The smell of alcohol stood in the air behind him. At that time Marija was supposed to be at the fountain, but she couldn’t remember seeing her. She sneaked to the door and was just getting ready to suddenly open it and catch the pig in the act, when she heard the conversation from the room. She recognized Marija’s distorted voice.

“Please, take it, I don’t need it,” Marija said. The man refused to take this.

“I can’t take it,” he said. “It’s not all right.”

“Trust me,” said Marija, “I know what I’m doing. Here, take the album too, Sister Anđelija put all the pictures in it. You can send that to the chocolate factory and then they give you candies for the kids.”

Rustling sound could be heard from inside the room as if the man was flipping through the pages.

When he came out of the room, he had the Animal Kingdom album under his arm, and in his hands there were several bluish bills which he slowly counted. Right after him the nurse entered the room pushing the dinner cart.

 

 

4.

On Monday the weather got much warmer and the smell of the late spring could be felt in the air. At the time she began visiting her mother, forsythias and primroses were only just budding, and now roses were in full bloom. Before she went to her mother’s room, she stopped by Doctor Bernstein and he showed her her mother’s test results. She noticed a strange correspondence: the fatter the doctor’s documentation grew, the more papers piled up, the thinner her mother got. Her cheek bones were starting to show; she reminded of her photos from thirty-some years ago. As if she was going back to her youth in this ironic form.

            She found her in the room sleeping in her wheelchair. Her mouth was open, and saliva collected at the corners. In her lap lay the book she was just reading. Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile. Tonight he had no strength to go for a walk, and her skin color had somehow changed. It didn’t promise anything good.

            “Push me to the Square,” her mother told her. “Maybe we’ll meet someone there.”

            The Square was the place where hospital corridors separated in five different directions, like an irregular star. At that expansion whose northern wall was covered by a mosaic showing Zagreb the immobile patients met, gossiped, talked and sometimes laughed. Most often they’d laugh at themselves, as if excusing themselves for something.

            But tonight there was no one at the Square so they went for an aimless ride along the labyrinth of this old Maria-Theresian health resort. It was slowly getting dark. Suddenly at a smaller junction they saw a strange shadow of Marija’s special wheelchair. They also heard some well-known sound, but when they reached Marija, she was asleep. Or so it seemed.

            “Have you heard it?” said Sonja’s mother in her frail voice.

            “As if someone was moving away in the wheelchair,” Sonja said. It was, without a doubt, the squeal of ungreased wheels.

            But when they reached the place where the corridor turned, they only saw Sister Anđelija pushing the food cart. Everything seemed normal.

 

 

5.

The next they when she entered her mother’s room, Doctor Bernstein was standing by her bed explaining something to the nurse who was adjusting the mother’s I.V. bag. This shocked her. More than anything because Doctor Bernstein had said that the operation was successful and that the wound was healing “per prima.” That’s exactly what he’d said. Then he’d probably meant it too. But having seen Sonja’s astonishment, he said that the gangrene was the illness affecting “the whole body”, and not only one leg, the amputated one, and that the complications were always possible. Her mother was pale in her face and it seemed she had regained the weight of a twenty-year-old girl. But her skin showed no understanding for such weight oscillations and now it sagged down creating interesting wrinkles. Some abstract painter could do wonders with it.

            The whole afternoon and a good part of the evening Sonja spent beside her mother’s bed. Her mother was not allowed to move a lot because of her I.V. and she kept saying that she had some sweetish taste in her mouth. The way she said it was a clear sign that her strength was abandoning her. Around dinnertime a nurse came and replaced the I.V. bag.

            “Everything will be all right, ma’am,” she told Sonja and put her hand on Sonja’s shoulder. It was a short, but firm squeeze which, despite of what the nurse said, told her that simply nothing could be all right. Then her mother fell asleep.

            Around nine in the evening Sonja decided to stretch her legs a little. Besides that it crossed her mind that she still had a chocolate bar in her pocket for Marija. Even though now she knew that the girl was much older that is seemed, she still bought her chocolate. Who knows why she did it? She wandered along the corridors, but couldn’t find her. She took a peek into the reading room and stayed there for a while. Among newspapers and magazines she saw several pornographic magazines which probably the male patients ordered.

            Finally, when she had already given up, she saw the young man without legs speeding in his wheelchair toward her mother’s room. He pushed the wheels of his vehicle with both of his arms and in his lap there was some kind of a packet.

            “I hoped I would catch you here,” he said as if he felt relieved of something. “I have a favor to ask. Could you, please, mail this for me? I missed the delivery people today. Down by the station, the post office is open until nine thirty.”

            He gave her a small packet wrapped in brown paper with pieces of Scotch tape at the corners. The packet was also cross-tied with string.

            “No problem,” she said absentmindedly and accepted the packet. The young man thanked her and slowly drove off. As he left, she could see the sweat dripping down his neck.

            She walked in her mother’s room and, seeing that the old lady was still asleep, she took her purse and headed for the post office. She held the packet and felt something soft in it. Something that changed it shape in her hand. There was some man’s address written on it, but there was no sender’s address. Nothing about that packet was suspicious, but she couldn’t stop wondering about it. About the string it was tied with, about the address and the wax seal that a sleepy postal worker who missed the middle finger on his right hand pressed on it.

            She thought about it when she was waiting at the station where she had to spend more than an hour before the night bus for Zagreb arrived. A group of local drunks at the bar argued about the national soccer team lineup, and some kids, teenagers, shot pool in the corner. At the edge of the pool table, next to the ashtray, Coke cans were lined up in a symmetrical arrangement so that the spaces between them was the same. She couldn’t help thinking about the symmetry and the obscure places it appeared at. Those empty cans obviously marked the places where the ball needed to hit the rails in order to bounce off in the desired direction. That’s how the kids practiced. Observing all that was a great way to spend time until the bus arrived. And then she heard a voice, “Ma’am, could you spare some change… I need to buy a ticket home!”

            That same unshaved drunk who she’d seen two days ago leaving Marija’s room was standing in front of her. There was still the Animal Kingdom album under his arm. Without even asking for permission he sat down at her table. He stank of something sour.

            “I have the album here, you can send it to the sweets factory and get a reward,” he said. “I’ll sell it to you cheap because I have to go home. My kids are waiting for me, and my woman, of course.”

            She felt disgusted. She took the album and started leafing through it. Besides, most of the pictures of animals in it were from her, she bought them, and this album, she knew it, marked all those days, those afternoons, she’d spent with her mother here. She gave him a couple of bills and kept the album.

            When the waiter arrived, he chased away the drunk. He wasn’t rough or anything, he just sounded serious when he told him to leave.

            “Stop bothering the lady,” he said and placed another cup of tea before her. “He has a daughter here, in the rehabilitation center,” he went on as if excusing the drunk,” she’s paralyzed. The kid receives some kind of stipend. Almost no money. And he borrows it from her and then drinks. Sometimes he disappears for a couple of months, but he always comes back. He’s got his reasons. I would too if I were him.”

            The waiter was a realistic man. He knew what real life is like.

 

 

6.

When she got off the bus in Zagreb, on a newsstand she saw one of those pornographic contact magazines she’d noticed in the hospital’s reading room. Something made her buy one and now she was carrying it home across Branimir Square. The air smelled of cough syrups she used to take when she was little. Who knows what distance the smell was coming from? She stopped under one of the street lamps and opened the magazine. First pages showed colored photos of women in different positions, advertising themselves. Some were shot from the back, some from the front with their lips spread open. They offered everything: oral, anal, piss, and caviar. She didn’t know what caviar was. In any case this wasn’t what interested her. She went on through the magazine and arrived at text ads. There were all kinds: couples looking for couples, women looking for well-situated gentlemen, and some men were looking for other men or women, depending on their taste. And then, finally, she found what she was looking for: “Young, model looking lady’s used underwear for sale to well-situated gentlemen.” A little bit down, a similar ad, perhaps from the same advertiser: “If you want to lick my dirty panties, send a reply to the ad number… Price: 50 Deutsch Marks.”

            Now it was the time Sonja thought about it all. She remembered the pigeons and their wistful gaze. Something horrible, yet deeply comforting was hiding in that distance between the birds and the seeds on the calm surface of the water. Did Marija have a special album with animals whose faces she’d never seen and whose kind she’d never known, but she knew their house numbers? Or all of this that happened was just a mix of malicious incidents. Like everything around us.

            The very possibility that the paralyzed girl in this way triumphed over her limitations equaled a miracle.

 

 

IV.     Five to Three Hundred

The word NADA in Spanish has a completely different meaning from the same group of sounds in Croatian and it means NOTHING. In Croatian it means hope. Until Nikola’s death none of them, classmates from the former school, ever thought about that apparent symmetry. Nikola died in a frontal crash on the road between Zagreb and Ljubljana. He ran into a truck and, as they couldn’t get the whole of him from the smashed metal, the tow service transported the car together with parts of his body to the morgue in Otočac ob Krka.

            At the time Nik died, the war had been going on for two years. The woman who sold the wreath to Davor, Sonja, Ivan and some other people said that she found it strange but that even in war people die in car crashes.

            At the day of the funeral, heavy, torrential, autumn rain came down. They met by the mortuary chapel at the Mirogoj Cemetery quarter of an hour before the ceremony. Ivan and Sonja took a taxi. Davor spent a lot of time circling around the chapel looking for a place to park and then he joined them under a huge umbrella that belonged to Ivan. Mac, Nadica Penezić and some other people from Nik’s former class were already there. All of them stood together, crammed like that under their umbrellas. Regardless of their considerable experiences with funerals, this was the first time that one of them was lying in a coffin. This confused them.

            “Now we have someone in hell too!” Davor said wanting to somehow break the unpleasant silence.

            “Cut the crap!” Sonja said. “The man died. Show some respect! That’s the least you can do.”

            “You know he died at five shy of two hundred,” said Davor again. This, it seems, was important information.

            “No, he didn’t,” Ivan interrupted him. “It was five to three hundred. I remember it well. Besides, I was the last one who talked to him.”

            “When did you talk to him?”

            “On Wednesday. He was just getting ready to leave. Besides, it’s not important. The main thing is that he fucked a lot in his life.”

            “Three hundred pussies is a nice number,” Davor said, giving Sonja who shifted her weight from one leg to another, a provocative look. Her black high heels were letting water.

            “The only thing I hold against him is that he never fucked a black woman.”

            The rain wouldn’t stop, and the people kept on coming and gathering in small groups. There were many women who shook hands with each other. In silence.

            “You can tell a fucker died,” someone said behind their backs.

            Right when the pallbearers took the coffin out of the chapel and Nik’s beautiful wife took her dignified position at the top of the stairs in front of the entrance, the air raid siren went off. It was the third one that day and one of the many that rainy fall. Panic spread among the people. Some simply ran to their cars, jumped into them and drove off. There were some who still tried to keep their cool and look serious, but the things around them prevented them in that. These were, mostly, older people.

            A few of them, friends from the school, followed a wooden arrow on which the word SHELTER was written. It directed them somewhere behind the mortuary chapel, to the back entrance that was most likely used to bring the coffins in. There they ran into a man wearing the gravedigger’s uniform and rubber boots.

            “Shelter?” Sonja asked. “Is it in there?”

            The man pointed at the door. “Down there. Where the fridges are.”

            They went down the narrow, metal stairs slippery from stamped soil. The further down they went, the colder it got, and when they spoke, white breath left their mouths. Ivan rubbed his hands, like a man from Wings of Desire showing former angel human qualities.

            The room smelled of wet pines. There was another, unknown, yet almost pleasant smell. Something like turpentine painters use to dilute their oils. This was some sort of a lobby and from there you entered the room with the fridges. The whole one side of the room was covered with large stainless steel drawers in which at a right temperature dead people lay.

            When they entered, they saw a few more people who took shelter there. Ivan, Sonja, Davor, Mac, Nadica Penezić, all of them suddenly found themselves in a very strange situation.

            “Look!” Davor whispered.

            Nik’s widow was clumsily coming down the stairs. Her brother in law held her by the forearm, and a child hopped behind them. A little girl, maybe five years old. Sonja jumped in and now the two of them escorted Nik’s widow to the nearby wall. The woman seemed drunk or something. You could tell by her slow movements. Most likely from sedatives. First she stood leaning against the wall, completely absent, in her black astrakhan fur coat, and then she squatted down. The child, who was now as tall as she was, held her by the shoulder. As if it were the only thing stable enough to support.

            “Who knows what they are shooting at?” some man said. He belonged to a different funeral. They waited. It took a while. More than an hour. Cold and damp slowly became unbearable. The man from that other funeral told a story about his nephew who got skinned alive by Chetniks at Banija. They dressed him to his knees and now his family had to bury him like that, without his skin.

            Suddenly they heard the sound of detonations. Under ground where they were sheltered, it seemed as if the sound came from somewhere down, from a big acoustic hall beneath their feet. Two men in gravedigger’s uniforms now came in the room. One of them had a bottle of brandy.

            “They’re shooting at the TV tower on Sljeme,” he said. “Here, I brought this to warm us up.”

            He offered the bottle to Ivan and he took a long swig. The bottle went around in a circle. The first time she was offered, the widow refused the drink, but when the bottle appeared in her hands again, she clumsily put the whole neck of the bottle in her mouth, as if it were a male sex organ, and gulped. It disfigured her face.

            With time, the brandy put everyone in the mood. Even the widow. The alcohol somehow mixed with the sedatives and she became chatty. First she rambled about different things, and then she said the word “NADA.” She meant hope and it was somehow connected with the events around Nik’s death. It was some kind of secret. Something with that death was not as it should be.

            That evening when he left, she said, she put the kid in bed early, poured herself a large glass of Amaro and sat in front of the TV. She felt good. Like a woman in her prime whose husband, slowly but surely, stopped cheating on her. Who knows why this happened, but it did. The people in the shelter, who had been talking to each other until then, suddenly went quiet. The woman whose husband had died continued. There was some show on the TV, one of those endless Spanish soap operas. She fell asleep. Around ten her neighbor called and said that it was raining and that she should collect her laundry. This woke her up a bit. It seemed strange that Nik hadn’t already called from Ljubljana. It never took him more than two hours to get there. It crossed her mind that perhaps she didn’t hear the phone, but that wasn’t a convincing explanation. Then she began to worry.

            She poured herself another glass of Amaro and tried to concentrate on some show about pyramids. But the pyramids couldn’t hold her attention. She thought about Nik. About how much pain he’d brought her in the past ten years of their life together. And even about how much she loved him just like he was. From her house pharmacy she chose two yellow tranquilizers and took them with her drink. An hour later her neighbor called again, “I’m sorry I’m calling this late, but you didn’t collect your laundry. It’s pouring outside.”

            Now she was already worried sick. No matter what he was like, or precisely because of that reason, he always called home from his travels. Sometimes in the background she would hear mysterious sounds coming from his hotel room. The sound of a shower, for example. He always called. First she phoned her brother-in-law. He used to call him too. They ran a business together. Her brother-in-law in his sleepy voice tried to convince her that everything was all right, that his car must have broken down in the rain and that he had nowhere to call her from.

            Another hour had passed and she had had a few more drinks. Every few minutes she entered her daughter’s room so that she could watch her sleep. That calmed her down. A bit later she phoned Sonja. Since her divorce Sonja lived in a small rented apartment in Novi Zagreb. She couldn’t sleep either so they chatted a bit. They gossiped about men and even laughed. It came to her like sort of a recess, a break in the middle of all her worrying.

            “Don’t worry,” Sonja told her at the end of their conversation. “Everything will be all right.”

            Meanwhile, the bottle kept going around in the shelter. Nik’s widow took a few good swigs from the bottle just as she had done that night when she had downed two more drinks after the conversation with Sonja. In the meanwhile, her brother-in-law phoned again to ask if she had heard from Nik. This time his voice wasn’t sleepy and he seemed somehow worried. That horrified her. She knew something happened. She quickly called Ivan. She was afraid that she would wake him up, but he had some people over: she could hear the music, voices, laughter. It was one past midnight. She was horribly worried and she asked him to call the hospital or the police.

            “I can’t do it,” she said.

            Ivan, who was always an optimist, calmed her down somewhat and promised he would call her after he checked with the hospitals. It all happened relatively quickly. He called her back in ten minutes.

            “He’s not at the Traumatology,” he said, “or any other hospital in Zagreb. They don’t know of other hospitals. It must be something with his car. He’ll call you soon, don’t worry.”

            While Ivan was talking she could hear a woman’s laughter coming from the room behind him. She didn’t know whether this was a good sign or bad. In the meanwhile, she called Sonja a couple of times, then Ivan and they calmed her down.

            Around two she came out on the balcony. The rain had stopped and she could, she said, see the stars in the clear autumn sky. Her laundry was still handing there, heavy from rain, but she was now watching the sky. She remembered Ivan who had once, in a similar situation, said: “When I look at the sky like this, I wonder how anyone could not be religious.”

            That’s what she’d thought about too. Could she now, at thirty five years of age, suddenly become religious? Never before that evening had she noticed how similar Ivan’s and Nikola’s voices were. These were the words of the widow of a man who had died five shy of three hundred, and the people listened. It was like in the old times, before television, when people listened stories together.

            And then, there on the balcony, she heard the phone. She ran in the room. It was Nik. At first she didn’t recognize his voice.

            “What happened to your voice?” she asked. Now she was already crying. The tension suddenly turned into a flood of tears. He explained that his car had broken down and that he had to wait for the tow service for hours in the rain. He lost his voice and had a fever. The truck just arrived and they towed his car to the mechanic’s. He was calling her from some motel by the road; he’d take a shower and spend the night there, and then in the morning he needed to collect his car. She had another drink and then, calm, she went to bed.

            The next morning she woke up earlier than usual. It was a sunny autumn day, and the drops of rain on the trees and the fence of the balcony glistened. Her daughter was still asleep when, she said, she heard the doorbell. It was her neighbor. They had coffee together and laughed at what had happened last night and at her soaked, soggy laundry. And then a police car pulled up in front of the house.

            The police officer who delivered her the tragic news told her that her husband had died on the road to Ljubljana near Otočec ob Krka, a little past midnight. He expressed his condolences and asked her to identify the body. Later, after the initial shock, she tried to reconstruct what had happened last night. It, in some way, helped her pain. From the official police report, she said, she learned that the accident had happened a few minutes past midnight, and Nik had called her around two in the morning. Besides that, the place he had called from was some thirty kilometers down the road to Ljubljana from the bend where the truck hit him. Things were getting stranger and stranger.

            She checked with the Slovenian police once again and they convinced her that there could be no mistake. Then she remembered his strange voice, the shiny starry sky, her tears. And then she felt something she had never felt before, something so big that, she said, would give her strength to move on. It was NADA.

            The people around the woman in mourning were quiet. The silence was disturbed only by her rustling attempt to stand up from a squatting position in which, most likely, she was already feeling a bit numb. Her brother-in-law jumped in to help her again, but she gently pushed him away.

            “I can do it myself,” she said. Although she was still unstable on her feet, her step now seemed more confident.

            “Keep an eye on the girl,” she said, “I have to throw up.”

            As she climbed the meandering metal stairs, we could see the stains of wall paint on her black astrakhan coat. No one warned her about it, no one went after her to clean he coat. Everyone just stood still, people from different funerals who were put together by a strange twist of events. Ivan, Mac and Davor were standing in one corner, obviously occupied in their thoughts. Sonja watched them as if she had just remembered something.

            “Ivan,” she finally said, “you were playing Preference at your place that evening. Did you have a lot to drink?”

            “Why would that matter now?”

            “Because,” Sonja said, “I think that one of you idiots played with the phone that evening.”

            “You’re sick! You’re completely nuts!” barked Davor. “You should be put in a nuthouse!”

            “I’m not sick, it’s just that I know you assholes when you get drunk.”

            Her words shocked Ivan. He was the only one who knew that that night, after their last conversation, he’d turned off the phone. If someone did make the call, it wasn’t from his place. Or he used his cell phone. The cell phone seemed like a possible solution.

            “Why would any of us do it?”

            “To calm her down,” said Sonja. “And to stop her from calling you and bothering you while you are getting drunk with your whores. That’s why.”

            At that moment they heard the whining sound of siren marking the end of the air alert. They climbed up in silence to do what they came here to do.

            When they finally reached the grave, it was full of water. Like a small pool. No one could tell where the water had come from: from below, from one of those underground currents, or from above, rainwater. Ivan saw four gravediggers, like four evangelists, as they clumsily lowered the coffin using some straps. There on that lake, some twenty years ago, when he had faced the death, or one of its forms, however convincing, for the first time, he had imagined a man with clown makeup on his face falling through ice and getting lost in that steel water. Watching Nik’s coffin slowly enter that brownish fluid, so much like the urine of a kidney patient, he thought about how human body was made to sink, regardless of occasional illusory flapping of arms and legs, which we sometimes optimistically call swimming.

            And what about the soul? The soul needed a lot of thought. It was interesting to watch the miracle appear from time to time, masked by the filthy color of chaos.

 

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